I never knew what being a Palghat Iyer meant. My grandfather hailed from an ‘Agragaram’ at Chandrasekharapuram, in Palghat district of Kerala, about 40 km from the Tamil Nadu border. One of the first graduates from that village, he spent his working life in the erstwhile Mysore State under the benign rule of the Mysore Maharajas, administering and setting up schools in various districts. My father, who completed engineering in Bangalore and joined the Civil Services, spent his working life in north India. For me, growing up in Delhi and working in Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Muscat, Johannesburg and Bangalore, Palghat was totally alien, discussed only at the time of my marriage.
My father, who had by now settled down in Delhi with my elder brother, gave me and my cousin the important task of donating a lamp at the temple of my grandfather’s village. The night train chugged into the Palghat station in the early hours. The landscape was verdant, a refreshing change from the concrete I was used to in Bangalore. Two parallel rows of houses, constructed with wood, tiles and hardened clay greeted me. On either side were two beautifully constructed small temples; green paddyfields, neem trees, peepul trees and a gently flowing river. Images of photographs I had seen of India of a century ago came to life. We went to the temple with the big traditional lamp that we had brought. It was a beautiful structure with a small hemispherical dome above the Ganapati idol and a beautifully carved pillar at the side. Birds were chirping in the cool morning and a squirrel was shrieking from the top of the pillar. Used to concrete, car horns and deadlines, I felt transported to something close to heaven.
The priest was going about his duty and did not seem interested in welcoming us. When we explained our purpose and requested him to light the lamp and perform the puja, he said there was no ghee to light the lamp. Shops here would only open by 11 a.m. Casually, he enquired about us and when my grandfather’s name was mentioned he broke into a broad smile.
My grandfather had performed the priest’s sacred thread ceremony in 1954. Then, magically, the ghee emerged from one corner and the lamp was lit. Prayers were said and I connected the priest to my father over the mobile. Common acquaintances and events spanning over 70 years were discussed and it was with reluctance that the phone was handed back. The priest pointed out to my grandfather’s house, about 10 metres away from the temple.
Later, as I went to the ancestral house along with my cousin a stranger met us and asked me if I was Swaminathan’s son. When I nodded, he mentioned that I was the spitting image of my father. I was so moved that even after five decades somebody could identify me with this village that I almost broke down and did not have the presence of mind to ask him who he was. My grandfather’s old house was cool inside, made of wood, plaster and tiles. A lovely loft where he would have probably relaxed undisturbed. About 50 metres from the end of the backyard was the river gently meandering. I thanked the present owners and took leave of them after drinking a hot cup of coffee.
(The writer's email: